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A Week of Juxtapositions

Pope Francis’ visits to Cuba and the U.S. on the eve of the 70th United Nations’ General Assembly meetings in New York heralded a brief interlude during which the entire world paused to listen to a clergyman who, in the local vernacular, not only talks the talk, but one who also walks the walk.

I was so taken by the Pope’s actions, speeches and homilies I fired off an email to a handful of friends, including my preacher, in which I posed the following question: “Francis’ visit is a historic event. His appeal is universal, and he exudes with the spirit of love. How come the Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant denominations don’t have someone of Francis’ character, humility, grace, and faith?”

In a welcome befitting a monarch, Barack and Michelle Obama met his Holiness, Pope Francis, at Joint Base Andrews Air Force Base. Absent from this royal welcome were the honor guard, 21 gun salute, and fanfare reserved for America’s favorite dictators. And justifiably so; on a mission of peace and deep concern for humanity, religious freedom, tolerance, and pleas for preserving and averting environmental degradation, there was no need for the phony accouterments of red carpet hypocrisy.

Acting as host, on the morning of 23 September, 2015, Barack Obama presided over the official national welcoming ceremony for his Holiness on the South Lawn of the White House. Known for his self-amour and his affectation for delivering vacuous oratorical exhortations, Obama delivered a speech studded with glittering generalities and empty rhetoric. The Pope’s response was a most humble, dignified, and genuine dialogue with the American people.

On the morning of 24 September, 2015, his Holiness addressed the Joint Meeting of Congress, and on 25 September, 2015, Pope Francis addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York. And finally, on the morning of 28 September, 2015, Barack Obama took the podium to address the leaders of the world at the same forum.

His Holiness Pope Francis and Barack Obama share the following: they are both the children of immigrants; they preside over enormous bureaucracies; both are CEOs of entities with vast wealth; their power (spiritual/military) is far reaching; both have had life-altering experiences; and both have their supporters and detractors. The number of Evangelicals who claim the pope to be the Antichrist is as astounding a number as those who still persist in claiming that Obama is a closet Muslim. But this is where the similarities end.

The pope is 78 years old; Obama is 54. The first exudes with humility, the latter projects self-confidence bordering on arrogance. The first walks slowly (with an occasional waddle), with some effort; the latter struts with a self-assured swagger. The first leads by example and draws on moral principles, the latter has exhibited a disposition for political expediency. The first doesn’t have to kiss up to special interest groups, the latter is indebted to and is controlled by myriad entities expecting payback for funding his two presidential campaigns. While both are concerned about the environment and global warming, given the choice, Obama will choose corporate interests over the environment. His allowing Shell to begin raping Alaska’s shores to the detriment of Native Americans and the environment is but one example. The first emotes with open, inviting, and outstretched arms, the second tends to use nonverbal hand gestures in a preachy, professorial, and authoritarian manner. The first delivers homilies on loving one’s neighbors, the second pontificates on myriad themes, including military prowess, and the necessity of waging wars to remove undesirables who stand up to the exceptional empire.

The first blesses the masses, especially children, kissing and embracing them (with special attention to the disabled), the second drones children, killing, maiming and disabling them. Anyone remember the 21 slaughtered Afghan wedding party guests, including several children? And how about the 534 Gaza children slaughtered by Israel in 2014 with O’s full acquiescence, full military support, and diplomatic cover and immunity in a court of justice? Only this week Saudi Arabia, emulating this open season on innocents, killed 139 Yemeni wedding party members with arms supplied by O. The first consoles and invites the weary into his world, the second causes/is party to the albatross of weariness descended on millions around the world (Libya, Syria, Palestine, Somalia, Yemen, Egypt, to name but a few).

With windows rolled down for easier access to people, the first rides in a mini Fiat SUV – while the second rides in an expensive stretch limo (I’ll concede that security is of paramount concern to help protect our president, especially when there are too many crazies out there). The first is dedicated to navigating his mission with peace and harmony in mind, the second flounders aimlessly reacting, instead of acting.

The first believes and calls for complete nuclear disarmament, the second is not only keen on upgrading nuclear weapons, but he is also exponentially increasing America’s nuclear arsenal. The first implores the world to feed the starving masses across the globe, the second uses and supports economic sanctions to bully, humiliate, demean and break the individual and collective spirits of defenseless nations by denying them food and medicine (think Gaza and Syria). The first abhors the sale of destructive weapons; the second is the world’s largest merchant of death. The first kisses, touches, and blesses people, the second kisses up to special interest groups and belittles half of the world’s population.

The first admonishes the strong not to use natural resources to “the exclusion of the weak” (meaning don’t covet and exploit third world countries’ natural resources); the second tells the world that the mightiest military the world has known will do anything, including wage wars (Libya) to exploit and to assure access to natural resources. The first continually peppers his speeches/homilies/sermons with references to shared human values and the need to put an end to the policies of exclusion, while the second is continually reminding himself and the world about how exceptional he and the country he leads are.

The first apologized for the church’s acquiescence regarding the heinous predatory transgressions and sexual violations against innocent children. He implored humanity thusly: “I ask you to respect one another. Justice is a basic dignity of all individuals … injustice is the abuse of life … [I implore you to have] Mercy, Love, Unity, Compassion [and to] work tirelessly against war.”

Inasmuch as I have reservations about the Pope’s meeting with Kentucky clerk Kim Davis for the simple reason that she, her supporters, including Mike Huckabee, her knight in pious armor, would use the meeting as the clarion sound of support for their cause, I believe that his Holiness Pope Francis commands an aura of peace, genuine humility, and exemplary compassion that travels with him and hovers over and around him wherever he goes. His appeal to “our better angels”; his plea to all to: “Please, pray for me”; the unpretentious eloquence of his utterances, and his inclusive tone are as refreshing an embodiment of what it means to be Christ-like – anywhere.

***

While Obama’s U.N. General Assembly speech rightly condemned religious fanaticism that is a driving force behind ISIL, he made no pretense about what’s on his agenda. Regime change in Syria, waging wars against those who hurt us (justified if a national threat does truly exist); waging wars to protect U.S. markets, maintaining superior military capabilities; and taking on China and Russia were the focal points of his U.N. speech. At no point did Obama mention the Palestine/Israel conflict. Is this an admission of his failed policies and leadership? And, if he’s sore at the way Bibi Netanyahu and Israel’s Congressional lackeys have bruised his ego over the Iran deal, he could have at least thrown a morsel to the Palestinians, a people on whom he’s been inflicting mortal wounds. After all the shabby Bibi treatment, Obama, like the abused spouse, is rewarding him with a $45 billion gratis arms gift.

***

On 29 September 2015 Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz, chair of the House Oversight Committee, orchestrated a witch hunt to defund Planned Parenthood. Relying on a doctored, deceptive video, innuendo, and fabricated facts, Chaffetz and his Republican colleagues, utilizing a mean-spirited and downright nasty prosecutorial tone, attempted to shake and intimidate Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards. While the Republicans are quibbling (and threatening to cut) over $60 million in the Planned Parenthood budget, they have no qualms about supporting trillions of dollars in corporate gifts and military adventures. Kudos to Ms. Richards for holding her own against the hypocritical assaults on an organization that provides a health lifeline to women.

***

Hillary Clinton’s self-inflicted “drip, drip, drip” is back in the news, and so is the Benghazi inquisition. In a business as usual and at long last, Kevin McCarthy’s Freudian slip exposed the Republicans’ long-standing aim of discrediting Hillary. Established solely to disrepute Clinton, the Benghazi Special Committee’s intent finally came to light. In a FOX News interview McCarthy fessed up the following: “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? … What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable [sic.]. But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought.” And Donald Trump dripped yet another anti-immigrant tirade: “If elected president,” he stated, “I will send all the Syrian immigrants back to Syria.” Poor John McCain; he is still trying to win the Vietnam War by bombing the hell out of the enemies de jour. Yesterday he claimed that Syria’s Asad is responsible for ISIS’s creation. In Mecca, Saudi Arabia, hundreds of pilgrims died in a stampede whose cause raised serious questions. Adding insult to injury, one of the royal princes blamed the stampede on African pilgrims. And, as Russia joined the U.S., NATO, Turkey and the Gulf-States in the raping of Syria, more blood dripped in a land where foreigners are forcing Syria’s population to flee. And in Palestine Israeli settlers, aided and abetted by their government, torched farm lands, homes, and schools, and uprooted olive trees while their government is using the Al Aqsa mosque compound as a prelude to instigate another intifada.

***

And finally, while none of the major networks covered yesterday’s Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas’ U.N. speech nor the historic Palestinian flag raising ceremony at the U.N. (both events were glossed over by PBS and the evening news), today CNN interrupted its regular programming to air Netanyahu’s full speech to a conspicuously sparse audience.

The major part of Netanyahu’s speech was an anti-Iran diatribe. “Israel will be watching [Iran],” he warned the world. Iran and ISIS are one and the same, and, in an attempt to smooth over his differences with Obama, he asserted that the “alliance between Israel and America is unshakeable.” And, in his typical litany of woe is me, the victimhood card was doled out with references to the Holocaust, pogroms, ancient, medieval and modern anti-Jewish injustices were listed. While all the former are sadly true, he’s inflicting the same hatred and brutality on the occupied Palestinians. Betraying his typical ethnocentric self-aggrandizement, an Obama version of American exceptionalism, he reminded the world that “Israel is THE [emphasis mine] vanguard of civilization,” and that “Israel is defending you [the world]” from Iranian and ISIL barbarism, and that Israel is even defending Europe and America from Islamic fanaticism and Iranian missiles. Instead of using last year’s silly graphic, this year Netanyahu held up another prop, a book purportedly written by a fanatic Iranian Ayatollah listing the ways in which Iran was going to destroy Israel, the strongest regional power and the only nuclear armed country in the Near East. The silliest moment was his long pause, a “telegenic,” childish, glaringly accusatory silent scowl during which he ever so slowly surveyed his sparse audience and moved his head in a 150 degree rotation to the mostly empty chamber seats. I wonder whether during the slow motion head rotation he noticed that Samantha Power, the hardliner U.S. representative to the U.N., was also conspicuously absent. Is it, perchance, Obama’s way of sticking it to his nemesis? This had to have been one of the silliest performances by any head of state in front the august international body.

If the world is indeed a stage, then Bibi Netanyahu’s playacting at the world’s forum was terribly short on facts, full of victimhood and threats, and lacked as appreciative an audience as his Congressional servants presented earlier this year on Capitol Hill. Aside from the Israeli delegation and an occasional hand clapping from the miniscule audience, Bibi’s primary applause came from the visitor’s gallery where no doubt the home crowd was planted in anticipation of a small audience.

***

And, as I write, another horrific tragedy is unfolding in Oregon. Ten dead, 7 injured, and counting!!!! Is it not time for Congress to support the president to take on the gun lobby, once and for all?

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Raouf J. Halaby has just recently been awarded a Professor Emeritus status. He taught English and art for 42 years. He is a writer, a sculptor, a photographer, and an avid gardener. He can be reached at rrhalaby@suddenlink.net

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